‘Waiting for the Sun’ by Elspeth Davie

What did we do before selfies? We approached strangers. We asked them to capture the moment, to memorialise our presence at this temple, that statue. Twenty-four images in a standard roll of film. You had to think about what you were going to snap. Twenty-four pictures to sum up your holiday of a lifetime. Now we might take twice that in an afternoon at the park. In ‘Waiting for the Sun’, Mr Shering is a man on ‘perpetual holiday’. He likes to have his photograph taken. Over the years it has become an obsession, a kind of never-ending pilgrimage. Sicily, Marseilles, “palm-trees, flags, ruins and mountains”. He does not so much photograph his holidays as go on holiday in order to be photographed. “It was the necessity to combine being somebody with doing nothing which led him to this new interest.” (Perhaps something similar could be said about the vagaries and vulgarities about life in the online realm.) Mr Shering is always on the hunt for likely photographers: he eyes them up, assesses their potential. These holiday snapshots define him. “All the same, he was hard put to know what he was himself …” 

Early on, we see him passing between two mirrors, “diminished but shining”. He thrives on the gaze of others. He needs the sun, of course: “His casual encounters were made only in its light”. When he climbs a hill at the end of a holiday in the south-west, searching for another photo opportunity, another defining tableau, he is dismayed to find that he has been upstaged by an eclipse and its crowd of gawpers. 

There is always the sense of a life slightly askew or adrift, or even on the edge of disaster, in Davie’s stories. Witty and poetic, she takes the ordinary, the overlooked, and reveals in them something transcendent, macabre, beautiful. Under heavy skies he lived from hour to hour, dulled and diminished in his own eyes, making few contacts, seeing and hearing little of what was going on around him … Elusive as its shining was, the sun was the only dependable in his monstrously unreliable life.

First published in The High Tide Talker and Other Stories, Hamish Hamilton, 1976. Also collected In The Man Who Wanted to Smell Books, Canongate Classics, 2001. Chosen by Stephen Hargadon, whose short stories have appeared in Black StaticConfingoTales from the Shadow BoothStructoLossLitCafe Stories and Crimewave.